When Did 2:08 Become Slow?

Multiple Choice Quiz:

1. When did we start considering a 2:08 marathon “slow?”

A: 2003
B: 2008
C: 2012
D: April 13, 2014

The 2014 London Marathon is in the books, and as everyone knows by now, multiple Olympic and World 5k and 10k champion Mo Farah struggled home in 8th against what was considered the best marathon field ever assembled.

This has been the year for track champions to take on the marathon in heavily-hyped debuts. In addition to Farah, the greatest female distance runner of all time, Tirunesh Dibaba also made her marathon debut at London, finishing a close third to Edna and Florence Kiplagat. A week ago, Keninisa Bekele debuted at the Paris Marathon and won with a very impressive (and mostly solo) 2:05:00 on a course considered slower than London, Berlin, and Rotterdam.

Whatever you thought of Farah’s chances against the world’s best in the longer distance, you’re probably in good company thinking that Farah’s time of 2:08 :21 just isn’t very fast. But I remember when a 2:08 was fast; when did it become slow?

In 2003, Paul Tergat became the first man to run a marathon in under 2:05. Betraying my advancing years, I have never fully adjusted to this fact. It’s not that 2:04 strikes me as “fast,” it’s that it strikes me as fanciful. If I forget that it represents actual human beings running on actual legs, then I can look at that time without hyperventilating — even make smart-sounding comments about races where multiple people record such times — but it’s all just an abstraction to me. If I really think about how fast that is — for how long — I just don’t believe anyone can do it.

But back to 2003. The other thing that was significant about 2003 is that for the first time there were 50 marathon performances under 2:09 that year. In other words, 2:08s  had become unremarkable to an extent that you could run under 2:09 and not even make the top-50 list. Maybe 2:08 wasn’t yet considered slow, but I think we can agree that 2003 is the year when 2:09 became unworthy of notice.

In 2008, Haile Gebrselassie became the first man to run under 2:04 for a marathon. In that year, there were 50 performances of 2:08:47 or better, many of them by runners whose names are completely unfamiliar to me. Do you remember Gudisa Shentema (2:07:34), Tariku Jufar (2:08:10), or  Tessema Absher (2:08:26)? I Thought not.

In 2012, there were no new world records, but there were 50 performances of 2:07:30 or better, the first time ever that running 2:08:00 would not place you in the top 50 for that calendar year. It might not even get you more than travel money for your next marathon. I think there’s a strong case to be made that 2012 was the year that 2:08 officially became a slow time, at least in the world context. If you were American, a whole different set of standards would have applied. Among Americans, only Dathan Ritzenheim ran faster than 2:09 that year, so 2:08 would still have been fast for an American.

(It’s a little crazy that Meb Keflezhigi’s 2:09:08 win in the 2012 Olympic Trials ranked only 127th overall on the annual lists.)

And then there was Sunday’s race in London, where Farah ran 2:08:21, finished eighth, and was told by David Bedford to give up on the marathon and return to the track where he still has a chance. Imagine thinking you’re a marathoner when you can’t break 2:08!

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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